Man and ape have much more in common than you think, argues USC primatologist Craig Stanford in his latest book, Significant Others. Anthropologists, linguists and psychologists have downplayed these similarities, but a growing body of evidence tells its own tale.

On my first trip to east africa in the early 1990s, I stood by a dusty, dirt road hitchhiking. I had waited hours in rural Tanzania for an expected lift from a friend who had never shown up, leaving me with few options other than the kindness of strangers. I stood with my thumb out, but the cars and trucks roared by me, leaving me caked in paprika-red dust. I switched to a palm-down gesture I had seen local people using to get lifts. Voilà; on the first try a truck pulled over and I hopped in. A conversation in Kiswahili with the truck driver ensued and I learned my mistake. Hitchhiking with your thumb upturned may work in the United States, but in Africa the gesture can be translated in the way that Americans understand the meaning of an extended, declarative middle finger. Not exactly the best way to persuade a passing vehicle to stop. The universally recognized symbol for needing a lift is not so universal.

Being best buddy to Gombe’s alpha male, Wilkie (left), means Prof (right) gets special perks, such as ample meat and sex.

Much of culture is the accumulation of thousands of such small differences. Put a suite of traditions together – religion, language, ways of dress, cuisine and a thousand other features – and you have a culture. Of course cultures can be much simpler too. A group of toddlers in a day care center possesses its own culture, as does a multi-national corporation, suburban gardeners, inner- city gang members. Many elements of a culture are functional and hinged to individual survival: thatched roof homes from the tropics would work poorly in Canada, nor would harpoons made for catching seals be very useful in the Sahara. But other features are purely symbolic. Brides in Western culture wear white to symbolize sexual purity. Brides in Hindu weddings wear crimson, to symbolize sexual purity. Whether white or red is more pure is nothing more than a product of the long-term memory and mindset of the two cultures. And the most symbolic of cultural traditions, the one that has always been considered the bailiwick of humanity only, is language. The words “white” and “red” have an entirely arbitrary relationship to the colors themselves. They are simply code names.

"The cultural anthropologists practically leaped across the seminar table to berate me for using the words ‘culture’ and ‘chimpanzee’ in the same sentence. I had apparently set off a silent security alarm, and the culture-theory guards came running.”

Arguing about how to define culture has long been a growth industry among anthropologists. We argue about culture the way the Joint Chiefs of Staff argue about national security: as though our lives depended on it. But given that culture requires symbolism and some linguistic features, can we even talk about culture in other animals?

In 1996 I was attending a conference near Rio de Janeiro when the topic turned to culture. As a biological anthropologist with a decade of field research on African great apes, I offered my perspective on the concept of culture. Chimpanzees, I said with confidence, display a rich cultural diversity. Recent years have shown that each wild chimpanzee population is more than just a gene pool. It is also a distinct culture, comprising a unique assortment of learned traditions in tool use, styles of grooming and hunting, and other features of the sort that can only be seen in the most socially sophisticated primates. Go from one forest to another and you will run into a new culture, just as walking between two human villages may introduce you to tribes who have different ways of building boats or celebrating marriages.

At least that’s what I meant to say.

Termiting – using sticks to “fish” for tiny insects – is a cultural commonplace in Gombe, but unheard-of in nearby Mahale.

But I had barely gotten the word “culture” past my lips when I was made to feel the full weight of my blissful ignorance. The cultural anthropologists practically leaped across the seminar table to berate me for using the words “culture” and “chimpanzee” in the same sentence. I had apparently set off a silent security alarm, and the culture-theory guards came running. How dare you, they said, use a human term like “cultural diversity” to describe what chimpanzees do? Say “behavioral variation,” they demanded. “Apes are mere animals, and culture is something that only the human animal can claim. Furthermore, not only can humans alone claim culture, culture alone can explain humanity.” It became clear to me that culture, as understood by most anthropologists, is a human concept, and many passionately want it to stay that way. When I asked if this was not just a semantic difference – what are cultural traditions if not learned behavioral variations? – they replied that culture is symbolic, and what animals do lacks symbolism.

Photos courtesy Craig Stanford

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